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Thursday, March 4, 2021

Rising from the rubble

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Being in Nepal amidst the earthquake was a harrowing experience that put into perspective what really matters

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A year ago I booked myself on the adventure of a lifetime – trekking through the Himalayas for 15 days and conquering my own Mount Everest – aiming to make it to Everest Base Camp. At 5,365m above sea level, I knew this was going to be difficult, especially because I had never trekked a day before in my life! It was to be a journey of self-discovery, of pushing myself to stretch limits, and of course to take a few selfies next to the “Everest Base Camp 2015” sign. Nepal promised adventure and a life-changing experience and when I arrived there earlier this year she didn’t disappoint.

Saturday 25 April is a day that will be etched in my memory forever. That day, a moment changed my life. If I am completely honest, I have been trying to write down my experience of this day for a while and every time my pen freezes as my mind rewinds back to relive the devastation of that day.

I started the day in the small town of Chitwan, famous for its population of Asiatic rhinos and tigers. This was the perfect setting for some much deserved post-trek rest and relaxation. After spending a few days here I decided one morning, quite spontaneously, to head back to Kathmandu. I booked a tourist bus and headed off to meet friends I’d made along the way.

The strip of road to Kathmandu meanders along the mountain and the Trishuli River, often becoming quite narrow. I needed to book a hotel for the night and was searching through some last minute deals when the first quake of 7.8 magnitude hit at 11.56am. No one thought much of it, the bus rattled quite severely in hindsight, but at the time, everyone except the driver wrote it off as “bad roads.” I remember looking out the window and noting the paved road – I couldn’t see any potholes, but that didn’t mean they weren’t on the other side.

Photo: Ram Thappa

Within moments, I noticed a landslide begin on the other side of the river. There was still no cause for alarm, I’d been through many a rock-fall while trekking. Landslides and rock-falls are common occurrences in Nepal. A quick scan had confirmed no homes or people were in harm’s way so I went back to my search for a hotel room.

We stopped at a village to the sounds of wailing. A car was on its side. A woman was devastated. Another accident, we all thought. Two days before, a tourist bus, just like the one I was in, had been in an accident and fallen down the mountain road. It’s a sad, but relatively common occurrence on the Prithvi Highway. Slowly we got information that it wasn’t an accident. There had been an earthquake.

My mind refocused from the macro view of the woman, the overturned car and gathered crowd, to the bigger picture. Concrete homes had crumbled, others were leaning dangerously, and a few people were in hysterics.

A few moments later, our driver decided to push on. “We must get to Kathmandu,” he said, so we all took our seats.

A minute later, I turned around. A cloud of dust came down the mountain and the village we had been in a moment ago was swept under its force. We stopped for a moment again, but couldn’t go back. The road was too narrow, the bus could not turn. We pushed on, each of us in our own thoughts, praying for the people in that village, praying that perhaps, just by luck, the cloud had come past the village and perhaps it was simply obscured from view, not obliterated from existence.

We reached a rest stop, a little restaurant, and a car park normally catering to tourists heading back to Kathmandu. I opted to stay out, as others went in to buy some lunch. Food was the farthest thing from my mind as I tried to process what I had seen. Then the second quake hit.

Photo: Ram Thappa

The first thing you hear is a deep rumble from the ground. Then comes the shake. The ground under your feet transforms into what I can only describe as waves in an ocean. You try to run, but you fall. Your balance is thrown. I scrambled on all fours and made it to a retaining wall. Rocks had started falling from the top of the mountain. The restaurant was shaking so much, it was as if I was watching a movie taken with a really bad handheld camera. A hundred people tried to stampede out of a small doorway. Then came the screams. The screams of people trying to comprehend what’s happening, to hold on to loved ones, to ensure their safety. Those were probably the longest ten seconds of my life. Behind the restaurant, a home crumbled to the ground. It didn’t matter. Everyone was safe and mostly unhurt. Nothing else mattered.

Again, we boarded the bus and kept going, only to come to a sudden halt. It was raining boulders. The mountains were angry. Rocks and boulders came hurtling down. A man on his motorbike was thrown off, but thankfully he landed in a safe spot. His motorbike had been hurled down the cliff. It didn’t matter. He was alive. That’s all that mattered.

My five hour trip to Kathmandu took 12 hours. Our bus halted just outside Kathmandu. Entire apartment blocks had come crashing down. Hospitals were treating patients on the footpath. Every few metres I saw people gathered around rubble, no doubt trying to rescue someone buried within.

That night, I decided to head to the Australian Embassy. I was greeted with that familiar friendly drawl. The concern of fellow Australian tourists, who enquired if I had been hurt and proceeded to ask me the second most important question, “Beer or wine?” There were tents already set up, warm food cooking on a gas stove, warm sleeping bags laid out, but most importantly, we gave each other a hug. Through the evening more Australians and Kiwis started filtering in. There were 13 of us on the first night.

The ground continued to shake all night. First, the birds would screech and fly away, then would come the rumble and the shake, after that the dogs would start howling. We would wake up each time and just look silently at each other in the dark.

Military aircraft had started flying overhead. I was told the Indian Air Force was providing all sorts of aid. “I will go to the airport tomorrow,” I messaged my family and closed my eyes to try and sleep. That never happened.

Tribhuvan Airport was packed with thousands of people trying to get home. I managed to make it in and just as I lifted my suitcase to place on a security scanner, another quake. This time, 6.6 magnitude. A wave of people hoisted me into the air. I rode the wave and was thrown to the floor when we got outside.

I looked at a fellow traveller, if we didn’t go back in, we had no chance of flying out. But if we did go in, we might be caught in an aftershock. A classic catch 22. We waited a while and then ventured back inside. I picked up my discarded suitcase and made it through security. My flight didn’t arrive that evening. It circled overhead waiting for clearance and left.

It rained that night. As I lay in my warm sleeping bag I said a prayer. Outside Kathmandu, waiting for me was my whole family, my friends, my work, my home. It didn’t seem fair. The feeling of complete helplessness that overcomes you is one I cannot pen down.

The following morning I visited a hospital to donate some blood. There was a lot of noise from doctors and nurses going about their business, yet there was the void and silence in everyone’s eyes. I flew out the next day into the arms of my loved ones, leaving behind so many to pick up the pieces.

Over the three days after the earthquake, I experienced 18 tremors. I also experienced the best and worst of the human spirit. Strangers who extended their offers of friendship and shared their last 2-minute noodles packet, to the ugly side of people who took military rations and walked onto a rescue flight.

As my flight took off, I waited for a feeling of relief. It never came. I was reminded only of a wonderful Sherpa who rushed into my fallen hotel to retrieve a bag, completely against my wishes, who held my hand and said, “Didi, ab aap ghar jaiye, apne family ke paas. Aur hamare Nepal ke liye dua karna. Phir wapas aana.” [Sister, you must go home now, your family awaits you. Keep my Nepal in your prayers and come back again]. And so, I came home into the waiting arms of my family.

I have settled into my old, familiar routine of work life now, far away from the place that changed me forever. Last night I dreamt of Nepal. I dreamt of the crisp mountain air, the breathtaking scenery of the mighty Himalayas, the colourful prayer flags and the smiles of the beautiful Nepalese people.

I am blessed to be alive and that despite everything I can still dream of the wonder that is Nepal. Nepal, I have fallen in love with you, I pray for you, I pray for the people who lost their lives and I pray that one day I will be able to return.

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